Are Children Learning

Indianapolis private schools score high but most saw ISTEP drops

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Hasten Hebrew Academy in Washington Township was the highest scoring private school in Indianapolis and also had one of the biggest gains over last year.

While many Indianapolis private schools were among the state’s very highest scoring on this year’s ISTEP test, a surprisingly high number of them saw lower scores than in 2013.

Statewide, about 43 percent of about 300 private schools did worse this year than last year. In Indianapolis, it was a majority of private schools — 55 percent — that lost ground from the prior year. (Find your school’s ISTEP scores here. Or see a sortable list of Indianapolis private school scores at the bottom of this story.)

There some factors to consider in those results.

ISTEP is only given in grades 3 to 8, so private high schools, some of which tend to be high-performing, are not included. Also, not all private schools with elementary grades take the state test. It is not required for private schools. And many of the schools that lost ground from the prior year were only down slightly from where they were.

That appeared to be the case for several Indianapolis Catholic schools that dropped less than two percentage points from the prior year but still saw more than 90 percent of kids pass.

Helping fuel strong Catholic school results each year is consistency, said Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

“Students who attend Catholic schools are well prepared and do well on the test,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with what we get with kids who come to our schools. We get them early and they tend to stay. When we can get kids in early grades and keep them, we do a very good job of teaching them the basic building blocks to be good students through their entire lives.”

In Marion County about one-third of private schools rank in the top quarter for percent passing both English and math on ISTEP among more than 1,800 schools who took the exam statewide. That percentage is four times higher than the percentage of schools ranked in the state’s top quarter for all eight Marion County townships combined (8 percent) and almost eight times more than Indianapolis Public Schools (5 percent) and all of the county’s charter schools combined (4 percent).

Five of the state’s top 10 schools for percent passing ISTEP were private schools, including Indianapolis’ Hasten Hebrew Academy, ranked eighth with 98.2 percent passing.

Principal Miriam Gettinger said Hasten made a concerted effort to reach for very high scores this year that paid off.

The school has had a long run of very high passing rates in the range of 90 to 95 percent passing, but last year slipped to a still very high 89.3 percent.

Gettinger said the staff went to work figuring out what their students needed help with.

“After last year we did some very careful data analysis of our school and their scores,” she said.

The school does not have access to diagnostic tests that public schools use to prepare for the state test, Gettinger said, so teachers created their own mini-tests with ISTEP-like questions focused on areas they identified as weaknesses for their students.

One example was math problem-solving. Teachers wrote ISTEP-style questions that students took each week to check on how well they were learning the concepts from class and figuring out how to apply them for the state exam.

In writing, students got more practice in ISTEP-like essay questions, writing narrative or persuasive essays each week.

At the same time, Hasten is solidifying a curriculum change it made about five years ago, with a heavier focus on critical thinking skills and writing in all subjects, even art, music and physical education.

“At the end of gym, they’ll write a reflection on the activity or a social scenario, like competition,” Gettinger said.

The curriculum changes, she said, made Hasten a stronger school.

“We absolutely will not teach to a test,” Gettinger said.

In Marion County, eight of the top 10 ranked schools for ISTEP passing rate are private schools, along with two IPS schools: Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted students which ranked No. 1 statewide at 100 percent passing, and School 84, a Center for Inquiry magnet school, which ranked 20th statewide with 96.3 percent passing.

Most of the county’s top 10 are Catholic schools, led by Immaculate Heart of Mary School on Indianapolis’ north side at 94.7 percent passing.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Immaculate Heart of Mary School had the highest ISTEP passing rate of any Catholic school in Indianapolis

A factor that might be helping Catholic school performance is a tradition of strong parental involvement. That might be partly driven by the desire to get the most out of the tuition parents pay, said Otolski, but it’s also because of an openness to parents in the school and an emphasis on involving them in student learning.

“If you’re paying $4,000 or $5,000 a year to send your kid to a grade school, I suppose you might be more motivated to pay attention to what your kids are doing,” he said. “But every parent wants their child to succeed. Catholic schools are really open to inviting parents to take part inside the classroom. Expectations are set early on that there will be a lot of work and parents are going to have to be involved to guide children to learn good study habits.”

The top scoring township school — Lawrence Township’s Amy Beverland Elementary School — ranked 14th best in the county and 186th statewide at 90.2 percent passing.

In other states, few private schools participate in the state testing program, but most in Indiana do. Private schools in Marion County have long been among the highest scorers on ISTEP. Enrollment at many private schools, especially Catholic schools, is growing thanks to Indiana’s fast-growing voucher program, which allows low- and middle-income families to use tax dollars to pay a portion of private school tuition bills for their children.

Critics say a big reason private schools do better on ISTEP is because they can be selective, picking which students to enroll and expelling those who fail to behave or achieve academically. Several of the county’s private schools use vouchers to serve significantly poorer students, who tend to have more problems in school. But some of those schools still scored well on ISTEP.

Otolski said it might be true that some Catholic schools have demographic advantages that help them perform well on ISTEP. But that’s not always the case.

“We’ve got kids all across the economic spectrum,” he said. “We have plenty of schools that are toward the core of the city that have just as much of the same kinds of difficulties as public schools.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.